Roasted Squash, Red Onion, Spinach and Cheese Tart

Is there anything better for a summer picnic than a rich, flavourful tart with short, crumbly almost biscuit-like pastry? I don’t think so; it’s one of the main reasons I look forward to lazy summer Sundays – feet up in the garden, tart on the table, a glass of fine wine to hand, the sun shining and the dog at your feet, with nothing much to do except relax. On days like these all is right with the world.

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RECIPE – feeds 6 for lunch

a quantity of shortcrust wholemeal pastry

2 tbsp olive oil

1 small butternut squash, cut into 1cm cubes

2 small red onions, cut into 8 segments each with the root left on

300g spinach

100g strong cheddar, grated

3 large eggs

300ml double cream

parmesan cheese, finely grated


METHOD

Heat the oven to 200C/ 180C fan/ gas 6.

Make the shortcrust wholemeal pastry, lightly flour the base of a 23cm loose-bottomed tart tin and line the tin with the pastry. Use a little surplus pastry to gently push the pastry into the corners and flutes of the tin so there are no air pockets, trim round the edges of the tart tin to remove the surplus pastry (keep this in case you need to make any small repairs) prick all over the base with a fork and chill the pastry case for 30 minutes.

While the pastry is chilling, prepare the butternut squash and red onions, then roast them in the oven for approximately 30 minutes until cooked through and starting to caramelise.

Put the spinach into a large pan on a high heat. There is no need to add any water, just keep stirring the spinach until it wilts completely. Tip into a sieve, squeeze gently and leave any excess moisture to drain.

Now cut a piece of baking parchment large enough to completely cover the base and sides of the tart. Scrunch it up, then flatten it and place it in the pastry case, then fill with ceramic baking beans if you have them, rice or dried beans if you don’t. Now blind-bake the pastry case for 20 minutes; after this time remove the baking beans and parchment and return to the oven for a further 5-10 minutes until your pastry is golden and cooked through. Remove from the oven and set aside to rest for a few minutes.

*Tip: The best bit of baking wisdom I ever received was this: blind-baking is not part-cooking, it is pre-cooking. In other words, your blind-baked pastry case should be fully cooked when it comes out. That’s the 100% guaranteed way to ensure that you never suffer the baker’s nightmare of a soggy bottom. Some authorities suggest sealing the base of your pastry case with a thin layer of egg white; don’t bother, it doesn’t belong there and you will be able to detect it.

While your cooked pastry case is resting, turn your oven down to 180C / 160C fan / gas 4 and continue to make your filling:

Lightly whisk the eggs and cream together, then season with salt and pepper, whisk again. Cut the roots off the roasted onions and remove any parts that have been scorched. Arrange the onions, butternut squash and spinach in the cooked pastry case and scatter the grated cheddar cheese over it. Pour over the eggs and cream mixture, and finely grate some parmesan over the top, this will give it a deliciously cheesy taste and aroma. Put the tart back into the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes until golden and set.

Cool on a wire rack, in the tin, then remove from the tin and cut into slices.

This tart goes perfectly with a simple green salad dressed with a quick mustard vinaigrette:

3 tsp extra-virgin olive oil

1 tsp balsamic vinegar

a small pinch of sea salt

1 1/2 tsp of dijon mustard


Whisk it all together in the bottom of your salad bowl, drop the salad over it, and when you are ready to eat just toss everything together.

Here’s another quick tip: refresh your salad vegetables and leaves and make them extra crunchy by sitting them in iced water for 30 minutes, then pat them dry before dressing them.

Goat’s Cheese, Fennel and Red Pepper Tart

Is there anything better for a summer picnic than a rich, flavourful tart with short, crumbly almost biscuit-like pastry? I don’t think so; it’s one of the main reasons I look forward to lazy summer Sundays – feet up in the garden, tart on the table, a glass of fine wine to hand, the sun shining and the dog at your feet, with nothing much to do except relax. On days like these all is right with the world.

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RECIPE – feeds 6 for lunch

a quantity of shortcrust wholemeal pastry

2 tbsp olive oil

1 red onion, finely chopped

1 large fennel bulb, core removed, finely chopped

1 Romano red pepper, deseeded and finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

3 large eggs

300ml double cream

1/2 tsp sweet smoked paprika

100g goat’s cheese, crumbled

12 olives, chopped


METHOD

Make the shortcrust wholemeal pastry, lightly flour the base of a 23cm loose-bottomed tart tin and line the tin with the pastry. Use a little surplus pastry to gently push the pastry into the corners and flutes of the tin so there are no air pockets, trim round the edges of the tart tin to remove the surplus pastry (keep this in case you need to make any small repairs) prick all over the base with a fork and chill the pastry case for 30 minutes.

Heat the oven to 200C/ 180C fan/ gas 6. Now cut a piece of baking parchment large enough to completely cover the base and sides of the tart. Scrunch it up, then flatten it and place it in the pastry case, then fill with ceramic baking beans if you have them, rice or dried beans if you don’t. Now blind-bake the pastry case for 20 minutes; after this time remove the baking beans and parchment and return to the oven for a further 5-10 minutes until your pastry is golden and cooked through.

Meanwhile, in a large pan, heat the oil over a medium heat then add the onion, fennel and pepper, cook for approximately 15 minutes until soft and just beginning to caramelise. Add the garlic and cook for a couple of minutes more, then set aside and allow to cool.

*Tip: The best bit of baking wisdom I ever received was this: blind-baking is not part-cooking, it is pre-cooking. In other words, your blind-baked pastry case should be fully cooked when it comes out. That’s the 100% guaranteed way to ensure that you never suffer the baker’s nightmare of a soggy bottom. Some authorities suggest sealing the base of your pastry case with a thin layer of egg white; don’t bother, it doesn’t belong there and you will be able to detect it.

While your cooked pastry case is resting, turn your oven down to 180C / 160C fan / gas 4 and continue to make your filling:

Lightly whisk the eggs and cream together, then add the paprika and season with salt and pepper, whisk again. Tip the cooked vegetables into the tart case and dot with the chopped olives and crumbled goat’s cheese. Pour over the eggs and cream mixture then put the tart back into the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes until golden and set.

Cool on a wire rack, in the tin, then remove from the tin and cut into slices.

This tart goes perfectly with a simple green salad dressed with a quick mustard vinaigrette:

3 tsp extra-virgin olive oil

1 tsp balsamic vinegar

a small pinch of sea salt

1 1/2 tsp of dijon mustard


Whisk it all together in the bottom of your salad bowl, drop the salad over it, and when you are ready to eat just toss everything together.

Here’s another quick tip: refresh your salad vegetables and leaves and make them extra crunchy by sitting them in iced water for 30 minutes, then pat them dry before dressing them.

Shortcrust Wholemeal Pastry

There is only one secret to a great tart, and it is no secret at all: make great pastry.

If your pastry is bland or soggy it doesn’t matter if you have the best filling in the world, your tart will be a failure. For some reason many people are afraid of making pastry but let me assure you that there is nothing to fear; it is quick and easy to make, easy to use, and if it gets a little bit damaged when you put it into the tart tin it doesn’t matter, you can just patch it up, even if it comes out of the blind baking a little worse for wear. Just keep a little bit of surplus pastry to hand for any running repairs and your tarts will always be perfect.

I always make my pastry in a food processor, my fingers seem to be a little too warm to use the crumbling method. If you use a food processor just be careful not to over-process the mixture, pulse it a few times until you have a consistency like fine breadcrumbs and there are no visible lumps of butter and shortening, then add a little water – just enough to bring it together without making it sticky.

This pastry is perfect for savoury tarts; the vegetable shortening makes it deliciously crumbly and almost like a wholemeal biscuit in its texture. Unlike many short pastries though, thanks to the binding properties of the wholemeal flour this one is very easy to work with and holds together well when it is rolled out and put into a tart case.


RECIPE – to fill a 23cm loose-bottomed tart tin, with plenty left over

150g plain flour

75g wholemeal flour

65g chilled butter, cubed

65g chilled vegetable shortening, cubed (I use Trex)

1/2 tsp fine sea salt

approx 2 tbsp ice cold water


METHOD

Put all of the ingredients except the water into a food processor and pulse a few times to mix it thoroughly. When it looks like fine crumbs add the water a little bit at a time and pulse for a second until the pastry starts to come together. Take care not to overwork the pastry mixture, the beauty of this pastry is that it is soft and crumbly, doing too much to it is liable to make it tough. Empty it out of the food processor onto a lightly floured surface and gently knead it for a few seconds until it is smooth and form it into a ball .

On a lightly floured surface, roll your pastry out into a round until it is approximately the thickness of a pound coin, this should give you the correct diameter to fill your pastry case with a little left over that you can trim off later. Always keep your trimmings as you may need to make a couple of repairs.

The recipes on my blog will always tell you what to do next, but if you are using this to make your own tart recipes this is what you generally need to do next:

Lift the pastry up onto a rolling pin, drape it over your tart tin and gently drop it into the tin. Using a small piece of pastry push the pastry gently into the corners and flutes of your tart tin so there are no air pockets. Trim off the surplus pastry from the edges of the tin and liberally prick the base of the pastry with a fork. Chill for 30 minutes.

Cut a piece of baking parchment large enough to completely cover the base and sides of the tart. Scrunch it up, then flatten it and place it in the pastry case, then fill with ceramic baking beans if you have them, rice or dried beans if you don’t. Now blind-bake the pastry case at 200C for 20 minutes; after this time remove the baking beans and parchment and return to the oven for a further 5-10 minutes until your pastry is golden and cooked through.

*Tip: The best bit of baking wisdom I ever received was this: blind-baking is not part-cooking, it is pre-cooking. In other words, your blind-baked pastry case should be fully cooked when it comes out. That’s the 100% guaranteed way to ensure that you never suffer the baker’s nightmare of a soggy bottom. Some authorities suggest sealing the base of your pastry case with a thin layer of egg white; don’t bother, it doesn’t belong there and you will be able to detect it.

Now make your filling and cook according to your recipe instructions.

Focaccia with Middle-Eastern Flavours

Focaccia is, of course, an Italian staple; ideal for tearing and sharing, one of the easiest breads to make, and endlessly receptive to all kinds of flavours. This particular version was invented by Sabrina Ghayour and can be found in her beautiful book ‘Persiana’. I urge you to buy a copy, it is stuffed full of amazing recipes that – on the evidence of the many that I have cooked so far – are absolutely delicious.

This bread goes well with any warm and spicy dish but also enlivens simple fare like a plate of fine cheese and vine-fresh cherry tomatoes. If you have never made bread before then start here; it is real bread in that it has to have time to rise, but it requires virtually no kneading and can be treated quite roughly with no ill-effects. It’s as close to foolproof as bread can be, it’s very impressive as well.

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RECIPE 

For the dough:

125g cold soured cream

150ml cold water

100ml boiling water

550g white bread flour

3 good pinches of sea salt

2 tsp caster sugar

1 1/2 tsp dried yeast

2 tbsp cumin seeds

1 tbsp ground coriander

1 tbsp dried mint

1 tsp chilli flakes

For the topping:

olive oil

1 tbsp cumin seeds

1 tsp dried thyme

1 tsp nigella seeds

1 tsp sumac

sea salt flakes


METHOD

Mix the soured cream with the cold water in a bowl, then add the boiling water to it.

In a large bowl, mix the bread flour, sea salt, caster sugar, dried yeast, cumin seeds, ground coriander, dried mint and chilli flakes. Make a well in the centre, then pour in the cream and water mixture. Using your hands as a claw, pull the flour into the liquid and mix all of the ingredients together. The dough will start off sticky and there will be dry bits in the bottom of the bowl; keep manipulating the dough until it all comes together and starts to leave the sides of the bowl clean. This will only take a few minutes and you will end up with a rough ball of dough that looks like this:

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Cover the dough with cling film or a tea towel and set aside in a warm place to rest for ten minutes.

Meanwhile, line a large, deep roasting tin (mine is approximately 13 inches x 9 inches) with baking parchment. Place the ball of dough in it, flatten it out and pull and stretch it so it completely fills the bottom of the tin. You can be firm with the dough to get it to do what you want, just take care not to tear it. Now using your finger poke deep holes into the dough, all over the top. Your dough should now look like this:

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Cover it with cling film or a tea towel, taking care to leave a lot of air over the dough, and set it aside in a warm place to rise for at least an hour. Don’t leave it more than three hours as the dough will get ‘exhausted’ and won’t be as good. You will see it rising, quite impressively, so when you are happy with the degree of rising you can continue.

Heat your oven to 200C/ 180C Fan/ gas 6.

Generously drizzle olive oil all over the top of the dough; make sure you completely cover the top of the dough – I use a silicon brush to ensure it gets everywhere. The Italians use an awful lot of olive oil on their focaccia so it seeps into the top portion of the dough as it cooks, that’s a bit much for my personal taste so I am generous with the oil without going overboard. It is a personal matter though so use however much oil you want to.

Now liberally cover the top of the dough with the toppings: cumin seeds, dried thyme, nigella seeds, sumac and sea salt flakes. Once again, be generous, this is all great flavour and the quantities of each that I have specified are only a guide. Your risen dough will now look like this:

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Bake in the centre of the oven for 25-30 minutes or until the top is golden brown. If you are unsure of when your focaccia is properly cooked, an instant read thermometer inserted into the centre of the bread should read at least 90C. Turn the focaccia out, together with its parchment, onto a wire rack and after a few minutes remove the baking parchment and leave to cool completely – that is if you can resist the temptation to tear straight into it…

Your kitchen will now smell gorgeous, and your finished bread will wow everybody:

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Moist Carrot and Sultana Cake

How do you improve a carrot cake? Tough call, but lots of cinnamon and sultanas does the trick in this delicious and surprisingly low-calorie tea cake. It’s made with sunflower oil instead of butter, and is a creation of the Hairy Bikers who reckon that it is only 239 calories per slice. Perhaps the toughest part of a calorie-controlled diet is the self-denial, but sometimes a little self-indulgence can help keep you on the path. When delicious and (almost) guilt-free creations like this are available, why deny yourself?

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RECIPE – serves 10

200g (net weight) carrots, peeled, trimmed and grated

3 large eggs

100 ml sunflower oil

100g caster sugar

200g self-raising flour

100g sultanas

finely grated zest of an orange

2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

icing sugar to decorate


METHOD

Heat the oven to 190C/ Fan 170C/ Gas 5. Line the base of a 23cm springform cake tin with parchment paper, and lightly oil the sides.

Beat the eggs with a whisk until light and frothy, add the sunflower oil and sugar and whisk until fully combined. Stir in the carrot, sultanas, orange zest, cinnamon and nutmeg. Add the baking powder to the flour, mix it in thoroughly, then add the flour and fold it in carefully until the mixture is just combined. You want to keep as much air in the mix as possible so don’t overmix it. There is no need to sift the flour into this cake.

Pour into the lined cake tin and gently level it off.

Bake in the middle of the oven for 25-30 minutes until the top is golden and the sides of the cake are just starting to shrink away from the sides of the cake tin. If you are unsure then a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake will tell you if it is done – if the skewer comes out clean then the centre is baked.

Cool in the tin for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

This cake will happily last 3 or 4 days in the fridge – if it is around that long…

Naan Bread

For an amateur cook, there are some almost impossible holy grails to chase when it comes to making curries:

  • getting a curry to taste just like it does in the restaurant
  • making the perfect naan
  • making the perfect Bombay aloo

When I finally came up with the recipe and method for making a great naan I almost did backflips in the kitchen. Okay, maybe not, but I was very pleased indeed; I must have tried 20 different recipes before coming up with the final refinements.

This is probably as close to perfection as I’m likely to come in my kitchen, short of digging a great big pit in my garden and sinking a tandoor into it. Those who have tasted it say that it is every bit as good as the one that we have in our local Indian restaurant, and theirs is very good indeed.

This recipe makes 6 naan, around 9 inches in diameter. It is hard to cut this recipe down for smaller quantities while still retaining its balance, but once it has risen you can divide the dough and freeze what you don’t want to use. It comes back to life very well and will last up to a month with no ill effects in a freezer.

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RECIPE – makes 6

3/4 tsp dried yeast

3 tsp caster sugar

130 ml tepid water

300g ’00’ flour

1 tsp salt

4 tbsp melted butter (or ghee)

4 tbsp natural yoghurt

To serve:

nigella seeds

chopped fresh coriander leaves


METHOD

Mix the yeast and half the sugar in 4 tbsp of the water and set aside for 10 minutes.

Stir all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl, make a well in the centre and add the liquids, including the yeast and sugar mixture you made earlier. Using a fork, bring the ingredients together into a sticky dough.

Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for 7 minutes. Lightly oil a large bowl, using a teaspoon of vegetable oil; work the dough into a ball and place into the bowl. Cover with a damp tea towel or cling film, set aside for at least two hours.

Heat your oven to its hottest setting and put a large baking tray in the oven to heat up. Allow enough time for your oven to get as hot as it possibly can. At full blast on the hottest fan setting my oven will reach around 270C.

After two hours the dough will have risen to a silky, pillowy texture. Turn out from the bowl onto a lightly floured surface; using your fingers push all the air out from the dough, divide into six and roll each segment into a rough circle (or the more traditional teardrop shape of a naan). If using nigella seeds as a topping, scatter them lightly over the top and gently push them in. Brush the top of each naan with a little melted butter or ghee.

When ready to cook, take the hot baking tray out of the oven and close the oven door. Quickly but carefully lay one naan on the hot baking tray, then put it back into the hottest part of your oven.

Tip: So often I see people heat their oven then leave the door open while they do something else, they end up with a cooler oven and a hotter kitchen.

Especially when using the fan setting, the hottest part is not necessarily the top of the oven – using an oven thermometer you can quickly discover the temperature differences between the various areas of your oven. It’s good to know, especially when baking cakes, because there can be a 20 degree Celsius difference between the hottest and coolest areas of your oven, front to back as well as top to bottom.

Cook the naan for around 3 minutes until the remaining air pockets have bubbled up, it is golden brown and starting to go dark brown in places – as you can see in the picture above.

Brush with a little more melted butter or ghee, and scatter with chopped coriander leaves if you are using them. You can make a garlic naan by infusing your melted butter with a crushed garlic clove.

Shortbread

We ran out of shortbread yesterday; good grief, you would think the sky had fallen in. It is my job to ensure that we always have a jar of homemade shortbread on our shelves, without a doubt it is the thing that I make most often and though we don’t eat it fast, we do eat it regularly – it is just so delicious. Luckily, shortbread is quick and very easy to make, it is a great thing to make with children, and so my mistake was quickly rectified.

I must have tried a dozen shortbread recipes, and they were all okay but not quite perfect. Then I found Delia Smith’s recipe and my search for perfection came to an end. The trick is to include semolina in the mix, it gives a lovely crunch and beautiful shortness to the finished biscuit.

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RECIPE – makes 24 biscuits

175g unsalted butter, room temperature

75g golden caster sugar, plus a tablespoon for dusting

75g fine semolina

175g plain flour

a small pinch of salt


METHOD

Heat the oven to 150C/130C fan/Gas 2

Using a stand mixer (just to make your life easier, if not a wooden spoon will do the job) cream the butter and sugar together until fully mixed. Add the semolina and beat again, then add the flour and a pinch of salt and beat until just combined. You do not want any rise in a shortbread biscuit so minimise the amount of beating to ensure you don’t put air into it.

Cut a square of baking parchment, scrunch it up then flatten it out. Turn your shortbread dough out onto it (no need to flour it) and using your hands or a rolling pin pat it into a rough oblong approximately 1 cm thick. Place the dough, on the baking parchment, into a small baking tin and ensure the parchment is pushed well away from the dough. The dough will flatten and spread slightly as it cooks so you need to ensure the parchment won’t impede it. Prick all over the surface of the dough with a fork, pushing right down to the bottom – this will ensure that any air has an escape route.

Bake in the oven for 60-70 minutes until it is a deep rich gold. If you like your shortbread extra crunchy you can safely leave it in even longer, just keep a close eye on it. About half way through it’s a good idea to check that it isn’t rising at all; if it is, just pat it back down with your hand.

When cooked, lift it out on the parchment and place onto a cooling rack. Immediately it comes out, use a knife to score the top of the baked dough, about halfway through, to mark out your biscuits (you can see this in the picture above). Sprinkle some caster sugar all over the top and leave for ten minutes or so.

Run a palette knife between the shortbread and the parchment, then slide the parchment out from underneath the shortbread, leaving the shortbread on the wire rack to cool completely. It will crumble a little at the edges, this is a good sign; just push it back together, as it cools it will solidify. When fully cool, break the biscuits off and store in an airtight jar or tin. They will easily last two weeks (or more) without losing their bite.

Chapatis

A quick and easy way to make a slight dish much more filling, chapatis – an unleavened Asian flatbread – can be on the table 15 minutes or so after weighing out the flour. Traditionally eaten alongside curry, where it is often used as a scoop in place of a fork or spoon, chapatis are also excellent with middle eastern dishes and make delicious vegan wraps.

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RECIPE – makes 4, will feed 2 people as a side dish

125g wholemeal bread flour

1/2 tsp fine sea salt

85ml water


METHOD

Weigh the flour into a bowl, add the salt, make a well in the centre and add the water. Using your fingers in a claw-like grip, pull the flour into the water, pulling and kneading with your fingers to get everything off the sides and bottom of the bowl. The dough should start off sticky but quickly become stiff and silky. At this point take it from the bowl to a lightly floured work surface and knead it for 7-10 minutes.

Heat a skillet, or large dry frying pan, until very hot. While it heats up, divide the dough into 4 equal pieces and roll them out into a rough round shape, adding small amounts of flour to prevent sticking as you roll. The chapatis need to be thin, thinner than a penny piece. If you have trouble rolling them out thinly, cut two squares of baking parchment, dust them with flour and roll the dough out between them.

To cook, lay the rolled chapati in the hot skillet and cook on each side for a minute or so. They should scorch and even burn a little; that’s fine, that’s where a lot of the flavour comes from.

Repeat until all four chapatis are cooked, the ones made previously can be kept warm in a low oven under a tea towel.

This recipe is easily scaled up to feed four or more people, just scale all the ingredient quantities up in equal ratios.

Cheat’s Sourdough

I love sourdough; the smell as it bakes, the way it looks as it comes out of the oven, the deep, tangy taste of it. What’s not to love?

Well… There’s all the palaver around looking after your starter. The feeding, the disposing of half the volume night after night, the mess it makes, the sheer amount of dedication it takes. If you don’t work, or your children have grown up and left home, or you don’t spend your life running from appointment to commitment then all of this is probably no problem. If, however, like so many of us your day is full from the second you wake up until the minute you finally get to sit down sometime in the late evening, who has the time or the inclination?

Thankfully, there are ways to get all the benefits of sourdough without having to endure the drawbacks. Purists may be horrified, and I’m not above being judgemental about people taking shortcuts myself, but the fact that you make your own bread is always a cause for celebration and when the results are this good your only critic will be yourself.

This cheat’s sourdough is made just like a regular sourdough, with a starter. The starter used here though is like your fiercely independent eldest child, it doesn’t need mollycoddling yet it will always be there when you need it and it will never let you down.

I also bake this sourdough a little differently, using a casserole just like this one:

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All will become clear when you read the method, so let’s get going…


RECIPE 

For the starter:

100g strong white flour

100g organic rye flour

3/4 tsp dried yeast

250ml organic dry cider (or water)

100ml of refrigerated starter (see method below)

For the dough:

400g strong white flour

3/4 tsp dried yeast

1 1/2 tsp fine sea salt

200ml water


METHOD

The first time you make this, the evening before you bake your loaf you will need to make your starter.

Combine all the starter ingredients in a large bowl, stirring with a spoon until thoroughly combined. I like to use organic dry cider in my starter because it adds more flavour and the sugar in it feeds the yeast, you can still use water though and you will not be disappointed.

Cover your starter with cling film and leave in your kitchen overnight.

In the morning your sourdough starter should have significantly increased in volume, will look bubbly and smell tangy. Get a small jam jar or similar (something with a lid) and spoon approximately 100ml of the starter into it; put the jar to one side for now.

Now add the dough ingredients to your remaining starter, in the same bowl. Curl your fingers into a claw and mix thoroughly, it will be very sticky to begin with but keep on pulling and combining for a few minutes and it will get firmer. Lightly flour a work surface and tip the dough out onto it. Knead thoroughly for ten minutes or so, until the dough is firm and silky; you will need to use more flour as you work your dough but don’t overdo it. Your hands will probably be sticky with dough, to clean them simply sprinkle some flour on your hands and rub them together, the dough will come off easily.

*Tip: I have a dough hook for my stand mixer and I have used it a lot to knead my dough rather than getting my hands dirty. It has never really worked as well as kneading by hand though so I don’t use it any more. The advantage of kneading by hand is that you can feel what the dough is doing, and somehow it just makes a better loaf.

If you do want to use a dough hook on your mixer just be careful not to overwork your dough, knead for 5-7 minutes only.

Lightly oil a very large bowl, just use a teaspoon or so of olive oil and rub it around with your fingers – all you are trying to do is ensure that your dough doesn’t stick to the bowl as it rises. Tear off a small twist of dough and add it to the 100ml of starter that you spooned into your jar earlier. Put the lid on the jar and put it in the back of your fridge.

*Tip: The jar that you have just put into your fridge will be an important part of every loaf that you make from now on. It will keep for months without needing any attention, and if it is left for so long that it starts to look a bit mangy just give it a stir to recombine everything. The jar contains a huge a huge amount of flavour which will be transferred to every loaf that you make in future, and the more you use it the better that flavour will be.

From now on, whenever you make your starter tip the entire contents of the jar into it, not forgetting to replenish the jar with starter and a twist of dough in the morning.

Shape your dough into a rough ball and place it into the oiled bowl. Cover with cling film and leave to sit at room temperature for anything between 1 and 3 hours, until it has at least doubled in size.

Take a clean tea towel and dust it thoroughly with plain flour. Gently roll your risen dough out of the bowl and onto the tea towel, be careful so you don’t knock too much air out of your dough and ensure you have used enough flour so it doesn’t stick. The dough has a tendency to spread out, to minimise this I roll the sides of the tea towel up and prop pepper grinders, small mugs and anything else I can find underneath the rolls to contain the dough and encourage it to rise upwards. Dust the top of the dough with more flour and lay another clean tea towel gently over the top. Leave for another hour or so at room temperature for its final rise.

*Tip: You can use a round banetton to hold your dough for its final rise, but it always seemed that no matter how much I dusted the inside with flour the dough always stuck somewhere, tore a hole in the dough and let the air escape. I have never had that problem using the tea towel method.

Put your casserole, with its lid on, in the oven; also put a small baking tray in the bottom of the oven. Heat your oven to 230C/ gas 8. Leave your oven long enough that it gets fully hot.

When ready to bake, using oven gloves remove the casserole from the oven and close the oven door. It never fails to amaze me how many people take the time to heat their oven and then leave the door open while they are mucking around doing other things, while all the heat is escaping into the kitchen. Again using oven gloves, remove the lid from the casserole and lightly dust the inside of the casserole with plain flour. Gently and carefully, but quickly, lift the tea towel holding your fully risen dough, place it into the casserole and gently roll the dough out of the tea towel and into the casserole. You may need to give the casserole a very delicate shake to level the dough, if you do then be gentle. Once again using oven gloves – yes, I am labouring this point but you only have to pick up a red-hot piece of metal with your bare hands once for it to stay with you forever – put the casserole lid back on and carefully place the casserole back into the oven. Bake for 25 minutes.

Oven gloves time again… Remove the casserole from the oven, close the oven door, remove the casserole lid and have a look at your dough. You should emit a gasp of admiration at the beautiful thing that you see.

Fill a glass with cold water, open the oven and quickly pour the water into the small baking tray that you put in the oven earlier, quickly put the casserole back into the oven, this time without its lid, and close the oven door. This will create steam in your oven which will give you a beautifully dark and crisp crust. Bake for a further 15 -20 minutes.

When you remove the casserole from the oven this time, tip it upside down and your beautiful loaf should fall straight out. Tap the bottom of the loaf and it should sound hollow; if so, it is done, so let it cool completely on a wire rack.

*Tip: Until I became experienced at making bread, instructions such as ‘tap it and if it sounds hollow it is done’ used to infuriate me. What does that actually mean? How hollow should it sound? What does hollow even sound like?

A foolproof way to determine if your bread is cooked is to use an instant read thermometer, or meat thermometer. Pierce the bread through the bottom and get the probe into the middle of the loaf, if it reads at least 90C then your loaf is fully cooked. Eventually you will know what hollow sounds like and you can dispense with the thermometer.

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Your finished loaf should look something like this. Believe me, it tastes even better than it looks.

The Ultimate Victoria Sandwich

If you want to upset a member of the Women’s Institute, show them this recipe and method. It does everything ‘wrong’, and yet the result is the lightest, fluffiest, BIGGEST Victoria sandwich you will ever make.

Using duck eggs takes this cake to a whole new level of flavour, they definitely are the best eggs to use when baking. Apparently the ratio of volumes between the egg white and yolk is different in a duck egg, and they are slightly larger than a large hens egg thus giving you a bigger cake, but all that matters to me is flavour and this cake delivers it in spades.

I have specified spreadable Lurpak here, just because Delia Smith has tested every brand of spreadable butter and Lurpak is what she recommends. I have however made this cake using all kinds of spreads and there isn’t so much difference that you need to worry about it. Use whatever spread you have to hand and you will still be delighted with the results.


RECIPE 

4 duck eggs

1 tsp vanilla extract

golden caster sugar – the same weight as the eggs

Lurpak unsalted spreadable butter – the same weight as the eggs

self-raising flour – the same weight as the eggs

2 tsp baking powder

a pinch of fine salt

2 tbsp milk (approx)

For the filling:

250-300 ml double cream

1 jar raspberry jam or compote

1-2 tsp icing sugar


METHOD

Heat the oven to 180C/160C fan/Gas 4. I find it is normally best not to use a fan oven when baking cakes as it can dry out the top before the middle is cooked.

Line the base of two 20cm (8 inch) diameter, 4.5cm (2 inch) deep cake tins with parchment and lightly grease the sides.

Weigh the eggs, in their shells – write the weight down! I guarantee that one day you will be distracted by something and the weight that you had in your head will disappear. Maybe it’s my age, but once bitten twice shy…

The established way of making a Victoria Sandwich is to combine all the ingredients together in a large bowl, mix them together until just combined then bake. That method works fine, gives a great cake and is certainly quicker than the way that I do it, but in back to back tests among family and friends the method below was the winner.

Break the eggs into a large bowl together with the vanilla extract and, preferably using a stand mixer, whisk the eggs. When you think you’ve whisked them for long enough, whisk them some more. And some more. Keep going… you will end up with a froth which is several times bigger than the original volume of the eggs. Don’t be afraid to whisk at high speed for ten minutes or more, all you are doing is forcing air in and it is this air which will give your cake most of its lift.

While whisking the eggs, weigh out the golden caster sugar, self-raising flour and spreadable butter, each to the same weight as the eggs. Add the sugar to the whisked eggs and whisk at high speed for a couple of minutes.

Now add the spreadable butter, together with a couple of tablespoons of the flour which well help to prevent the mixture curdling. Whisk again for a minute or so at high speed until fully combined.

Now sieve the flour and baking powder into the mix, together with a pinch of salt, and with the mixer on its lowest speed combine the flour into the mix slowly and carefully until it is just combined. Have a couple of tablespoons of milk (any kind) at your side and add whatever quantity is required to keep the consistency of your cake mix at a dropping consistency – in other words a consistency that will drop gracefully off a wooden spoon, not stick to it in a big lump or run straight off like a liquid.

Now divide your mix equally between your prepared cake tins…

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…ensuring the top is fairly smooth. There’s no need to be pernickety about it, the mixture will rise and smooth out minor differences. Bake in the centre of the oven for 25-30 mins until well risen…

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…look at that, they have doubled in size. The cake should be just starting to come away from the sides of the cake tin, as you can see above, and a gentle pat on the top of the cake should reveal it to be soft but set. There should be no need to insert a skewer to check the middle.

Allow the cakes to cool in their tins for about 5 mins, when you should be able to handle the tins without using oven gloves. Run a knife around the inside of the cake tin to ensure nothing will stick and then turn each cake out into your hand. Bear in mind that you will want the best looking top on your cake, and also bear in mind that cooling on a rack will leave lines in your cake. So, select which will be the top of your cake and ensure that surface sits uppermost from the cooling rack; the bottom half of the cake should sit on its top. That sounds a little confusing, so to clarify – when you assemble your cake the most pleasing arrangement is to have a little ‘waist’ in the middle, presuming that your cake tins have a slight angle to their sides. To achieve the waist, you put the bottom half upside down so the narrowest part is uppermost, and the top half should sit right way up so its narrowest part is at the bottom. You will see this effect in the picture of the finished cake, below.

Some like to trim the sides of the cake so they are perfectly straight. If I were presenting it in a competition I might do that, but I think it is a waste of perfectly good cake so who cares if the sides look imperfect – they taste wonderful.

Once the cakes are fully cooled, whip 250-300ml of double cream until it is stiff – be careful not to go too far or you will end up with butter. Spread the entire jar of jam or compote on top of the bottom half in an even layer, pushing it toward but not quite reaching the edge, it will creep there on its own when the cake is fully assembled. Now using a pallet knife or spatula carefully lay the whipped cream on top of the jam, ensuring the two layers don’t mix and once again pushing it out almost to the edge in a thick, even layer. Don’t be stingy with your filling – make it thick and indulgent. Make this a BIG cake!

Now carefully place the top cake half on to the cream, ensuring the cake is level on top, doesn’t lean and is aligned parallel all the way around. Using a small sieve, dust the top of the cake with icing sugar, present, and eat!

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